The mountains classification for the 2016 Tour de France is set to change. In recent years the points scale was doubled on the final summit finish of the day in a bid to tilt the competition towards the race’s bigger names but it’s meant the mountains jersey has become an afterthought. Chris Froome won the competition this year, a by-product of his fight for yellow. Now it seems points will be doubled on the final climb before a descent in a bid to tempt riders to sprint for the top and perhaps keep going, an incentive to aim for the jersey but also to attack over the top so once again yellow and polka-dot could be combined.
These constant changes mark a problem with the mountains prize, it’s a popular contest but one that seems to struggle to define itself.
Look back at the 2015 Tour de France and who was the best climber? If we mean the King of the Mountains you might have forgotten because Chris Froome won but without it being an obvious objective, it was something conquered on the way to winning the race overall.
In a way posing the question of “who was the best climber” takes us closer to core of the issue, for the jersey is not merely for the rider who wins summit finishes, somewhere in the popular conception is the identity, the archetype of the climber. A climber being a sub-species of the racing cyclist, usually a small and thin rider and the kind who flounders in a time trial and gets bounced around on pavé with often a loner personality too. It’s a myth that’s been sustained thanks to wins by the likes of Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes, Lucien Van Impe, Luis Herrera, Robert Millar and Thierry Claveyrolat et al. These names of the past could flourish in the competition because they had something to aim for and often didn’t threaten those going for the yellow jersey. Jacques Anquetil had Bahamontes in check, Van Impe readily accepted he could not beat Eddy Merckx and so on. Crucially these riders and others could get the better of almost anyone else on a climb.
“The green jersey is for the rider who lifts their arms in the air for three seconds at the finish line, the polka dot jersey for someone who achieves something enormous”
– Jean-René Bernaudeau, in Maillot à Pois by Pierre Carrey
Romantic as ever, Bernaudeau still touches on the jersey’s status and the way it is often won by long raids across the mountains. In recent years this has a more targeted matter with riders winning the jersey though the accumulation of points early in a stage. One of Bernaudeau’s riders, Anthony Charteau, won the competition in 2010 yet even his mother wouldn’t boast he could have rivalled Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador in a straight uphill contest.
If the mountains jersey is in trouble today perhaps the Tour de France itself is the problem? The GC itself has become a giant mountains competition. Look back previous editions of the Tour and they used to reward time triallists a lot more. The chart above suggests this and it only goes back to 2000. In the 1990s it was common to have more, take 1992 where there was 137km of solo time trials with a 63.5km team time trial on top and only two proper summit finishes with Sestriere and Alpe d’Huez: astonishingly different from what we see as the norm these days. Rerun the 1992 route with the 2015 peloton and perhaps Chris Froome would triumph but he’d be joined by others on the podium. Today there are four or five summit finishes in every Tour and more mountain stages on top, the yellow jersey now goes to the rider who drops their rivals on the climbs.
So what to do? The problem is rejigging the points looks like generals who make battle plans based on their last war, that the points are allocated to prevent the previous unwanted scenario from happening and this leads to unintended consequences. In recent years the Tour has moved to stop a “raider” scooping points mid-stage when they’ve been let up the road by the bunch before being reeled in later in the stage. Of course being “let up the road” usually involves a massive effort but this is often invisible to the public as it’s not on TV. In reaction to wins by the likes of Anthony Charteau points have been doubled in the final climb in a way to give the bigger names a better chance.
There could be a “Strava prize” or at least the use of timing mats or the new GPS telemetry systems where riders are timed and the fastest recorded ascent brings the most points, an idea floated by The Cycling Podcast’s Lionel Birnie. Take it to a more absolute scale and it could be decided on cumulative time, like the yellow jersey, but only for all the marked climbs, the shortest cumulative time up all the côtes and over the cols wins. Yet Strava works for training because it simulates a virtual race against others, in the middle of the Tour de France we’d see riders sit in the bunch or be paced by their teams and it’d lack the visual cues of un uomo solo è al comando, “a man alone and in the lead” that cycling venerates or the simple and obvious contest of two riders sprinting for a finish line for the points. In short we’d struggle to see the battle on TV and this could make it hard to follow.
Another idea would be to abolish the competition altogether. Excessive? Yes but heretical thoughts can inspire reflection. These days it’s becoming a consolation prize: lose time early in the race and you can have a crack at the mountains competition. The jersey and the competition do bring something to the race, if only as a talking point when not much is happening, for example if the yellow jersey competition is sewn-up here is a secondary contest. It works as an incentive scheme in the mountains to encourage attacks, especially long rate moves.
What about another jersey, scrap those polka dots? This is revealing too for it shows the way the polka dot jersey has become iconic to the sport in the way that the mountains jersey in the Giro isn’t. People buy polka dot socks and some even decorate their horses for the day. In other words the jersey has become essential to the imagery of the Tour de France.
An iconic jersey in the sport, the mountains competition of the Tour de France seems to be struggling to define itself. Rejigging the points is a solution but cannot guarantee a satisfactory outcome. Indeed fiddling with the rules seems problematic, scratching an itch rather than tackling the underlying problem. The Tour de France knows that mountain stages are ratings jackpots and contemporary routes for the race ensure four to five decisive summit finishes. The 2016 Tour will test a new points scale but it’ll also see one uphill time trial making the yellow jersey dependent on the mountains too. The best climber will wear a yellow jersey.